Written by: Nick Spencer / pencilled by: Steve McNiven
What’s it about?
Hydra has taken control with Steve Rogers as its leader…can the remnants of the superhero community prevail and restore hope before all is lost?
Building on the prelude chapters in Secret Empire #0 and the Free Comic Book Day issue (and spilling out of the pages of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers series), Secret Empire #1 thrusts readers into the midst of Marvel’s latest comics event. You’d be forgiven for finding the word “event” wearying, especially with the disappointment of Civil War II still lingering in the thoughts of many, but with this opening salvo and the shocking revelations of issue #0 it seems that writer Nick Spencer is stirring up a rich brew that will truly shake up the Marvel Universe.
As even the most casual comics reader will by now be aware, Secret Empire is the culmination of Hydra’s plans to seize control of the United States – and the free world beyond – with Steve Rogers’ Captain America as their leader. The reveal of Rogers’ Hydra allegiance (thanks to some reality altering meddling via a sentient cosmic cube named Kobik – see the Avengers: Standoff crossover) way back in the premiere issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers caused significant controversy, with heavy ripples of discontent still reverberating throughout fan circles. To see Marvel’s greatest patriot become a symbol of evil is understandably distressing and although Spencer has not been restrained in this regard, he has managed to construct a compelling arc that any true fan of comics should approach with an open mind.
With Secret Empire #1, Spencer keeps the controversy flowing as we skip ahead some months after issue #0 with citizens of the U.S. under the rule of Hydra and kept in check by Steve Rogers and his forces. With the bulk of the superhero community either stranded in space battling endless hordes of Chituari or trapped beneath a Darkhold ‘bubble’ over Manhattan, it’s left to an underground resistance lead by Black Widow and Hawkeye to plot Hydra’s downfall. Whilst new readers will likely be lost (luckily Marvel have just published catch-up collection The Road to Secret Empire), having the story told mainly via the perspective of a young schoolboy named Rayshaun helps to ease us in without an overload of exposition as images of schoolchildren raising a ‘Hail Hydra’ immediately establish that there is an ominous shift in the Marvel U’s status quo.
What Spencer does with Steve Rogers is not to make him purely evil in a one dimensional sense, whilst he may not be the hero we’re familiar with there are layers to the characterisation as he paints a man who feels he is simply doing what is right in the circumstances of his altered history. Despite the revelations of issue #0 as to the nature of these ‘alterations’ it’s unlikely that Marvel will facilitate a complete and permanent perversion of such a beloved and treasured character.
Secret Empire also has some definite parallels to the current political climate and tenuous international situations we see playing out in the news every day. To Spencer’s credit it doesn’t feel totally overt or unnecessarily forced in the face of the reader but it’s there as much or as little as any individual might wish to read into it.
It might be dark and pessimistic stuff but there’s still a layer of hope and even fun as the younger, brighter Marvel heroes of the resistance, including Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Amadeus Cho’s ‘Totally Awesome’ Hulk and Riri Williams’ Ironheart take the share of the action and together with the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing provide some much needed beats of humour and optimism.
Visually, Secret Empire #1 is solid albeit the usual sharpness and detail of Steve McNiven’s pencils are a little muddied by the dark, washed-out colours by Matthew Wilson. It’s by no means as stunning as McNiven’s work on the original Civil War or Old Man Logan but decent enough and a good fit for the overall tone of the book. It’ll be interesting to see how much consistency can be maintained with the rotation of numerous different artists on the nine issue series.
Controversies aside, Secret Empire is making for enjoyable reading and will surely pave the way for the hope and heroism promised by Marvel’s forthcoming Legacy initiative.
The bottom line: A strong ‘start’ to yet another Marvel Comics event but one that builds on an already solid foundation as Nick Spencer presses forward with Hydra’s domination of the Marvel Universe.
Secret Empire #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.